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Gear It Up For The Road

Our suggestions for the essential equipment to have with you for summertime excursions
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Summertime is road trip season. Whether you’re packing the family in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster for a trip across the nation or taking a three-day weekend for yourself, traveling by car has the advantage of allowing you to bring an array of gear. Traveling on foot or by bus limits the gear you can carry, as does packing for air or train travel, or a boat cruise. But your car or SUV has lots of room for gear, and it can serve as a handy “blind” at many locations. Knowing that space isn’t a problem, the question is what should you take on a road trip?

Before we get into that, consider that while you’ll be driving to your destination, you might head out on foot to initially explore the area. An all-in-one zoom lens for your camera provides a lot of focal-length flexibility and makes for easy roaming. You’ll be ready for wide-angle, “normal” and telephoto shots at all times. Just bear in mind that the wide-range “superzooms” are a compromise among flexibility, bulk and performance: They’re handy and compact, but not as good optically as short-range zooms or prime lenses. If you find some really good subjects in your initial explorations, you might want to return with the appropriate primes or short-range zooms to fully document them.

While photographers and everyone else got by without GPS for decades, today, many love these useful devices. A GPS can lead you precisely to specific locations, track your travels for future reference and even let you geotag your images so each will contain metadata as to where it was taken (longitude, latitude, elevation and, with some systems, even the direction the camera was pointed).

More new cameras are coming out with GPS built in with each generation. These make geotagging simple (bearing in mind they do drain the camera battery more quickly), but can’t be used for navigation. So, for a road trip, you’ll want an independent GPS unit. There’s a wide variety to choose from, from handheld hiking units to car navigation devices, to suit your specific requirements.

Brunton Get-Back GPS

Brunton’s Get-Back GPS quickly provides the fastest, most direct route back to your starting point (and up to two other locations), showing the route by arrow and the distance in meters or miles. The compact 2.8×1.5×0.5-inch, 1.3-ounce unit can run for up to 13 hours on a single battery charge, and recharges via USB. It also incorporates a self-calibrating digital compass. Estimated Street Price: $99.99.

Magellan offers an extensive range of GPS units for a wide variety of uses, both in the car and in the field. The eXplorist 510 TOPO! Edition combines the eXplorist 510 GPS with a 12-month, unlimited-download subscription to National Geographic TOPO!, providing access to full-color, high-resolution scans of authentic USGS topo maps. A built-in, 3.2-megapixel camera, microphone and speaker make it easy to record geo-referenced images with voice notes to supplement the still images and videos you make with your digital or film camera. A 3.0-inch touch screen and two programmable hard buttons make operation quick and easy. Estimated Street Price: $299.

Magellan‘s RoadMate 6230-LM DashCam Navigator combines a dedicated premium GPS navigator with a 120° angle of view dash camera that can shoot HD video in an endless loop—a nice complement to your still images. A G-Shock Sensor automatically locks video footage, location and date/time should an impact occur. The unit features a five-inch touch screen, landmark guidance, seven million points of interest, multi-destination routing, free lifetime map updating and more. Estimated Street Price: $199.99.

The SPOT Gen3 personal tracker is a satellite-based GPS messenger device that provides several valuable functions. For life-threatening emergencies, press the S.O.S. button to have the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center direct emergency responders to your exact location. For non-life-threatening emergencies, press the Help button to notify your personal contacts that you need help. Check-in/OK tells contacts where you are and that you’re okay. Track Progress lets your contacts track your progress when you’re afield. Custom message sends a preset message to contacts. The 3.4×2.6×1.0-inch, four-ounce (including four AAA batteries) unit can function in temperatures from -22° to 140°F and at elevations from -328 to 21,320 feet. Estimated Street Price: $149.99 (service subscription required).

SPOT Gen3; Magellan eXplorist 510 TOPO!.


Wireless Control
CamRanger is a wireless camera control that lets you set up your camera where you want it and then operate it from the comfort of your car up to 150 feet away. Just plug the camera into the CamRanger via the provided USB cable and you have an ad-hoc WiFi network to your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or Android device. You can view the live image, focus by touching the subject on the screen, take and view photos, view full-res images, and set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, exposure compensation and much more. CamRanger is available for many recent Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Estimated Street Price: $299.99-$364.99.

Auxiliary Power
Your digital cameras and flash units are battery-powered, which means you need some way to recharge their batteries in the field. (Or, if they can run off AC, a source of AC would be nice.)

Photogenic ION Pure Sine Wave Inverter

Photogenic‘s ION Pure Sine Wave Inverter was designed to power AC flash units, and has two three-prong AC outlets that can power AC devices, plus a USB port that can power/recharge a smartphone or other electronic device. The ION is powered by a lithium-ion battery that can provide 1,200 320 w/s flashes, and recharges in three to four hours. Estimated Street Price: $399; extra batteries $145 each.

Solmeta‘s PowerPal can recharge many Canon and Nikon DSLR batteries and other 5V USB-charged devices in the field. It features two USB output ports that can be used simultaneously. The six built-in, high-capacity lithium-ion cells provide 58 watt-hours and can be recharged using AC or a car cigarette lighter. Estimated Street Price: $149.

Vanguard Auctus Plus 283AT Tripod

If you’re primarily going to be a road trip photographer, there’s no excuse not to have a tripod. A good one can hold your camera steadier than you can, allowing you to shoot at low ISO in any light level and stop down when great depth of field is needed. The tripod can also lock in your composition, so you can carefully examine it, and won’t accidentally change it as you squeeze off the shot.

Things to consider when choosing a tripod include: can it support your camera and lens(es) steadily, can it position your camera as high and as low as you’ll likely want it, how easy is it to use (leg locks, adjusting camera height, use on uneven terrain), “carryability” (is it so heavy you’re likely not to use it) and material (carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum or wood and absorbs vibration better than aluminum).

Really Right Stuff TVC-33 Tripod

There are many good tripod brands, including Benbo, Benro, Cullmann, Davis & Sanford, Giottos, Gitzo, Induro, Manfrotto, Novoflex, Really Right Stuff, Sirui, Slik, Smith-Victor and Vanguard. Check them out online at the manufacturers’ websites, then try out the ones that appeal to you in person, if possible, so you can see how well you like operating them.

Window Mount
Your car can serve as an effective blind, allowing you to photograph wildlife in national parks and even remote areas. Animals are less likely to see you as a predator when you’re in a car, and the car also offers you protection from dangerous beasts.

Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount

Rather than just rest your long lens (or forearm) on the window opening, you can use a car-window mount. This attaches to the window and provides a pan or ballhead (either as part of the package or via optional accessory) to provide better support for the camera/lens combo at your desired shooting angle. The Manfrotto Car Window Pod (Estimated Street Price: $35.50; $69.99 with 234RC Tilt Head), Vanguard PH-304 Window Mount ($59.99 with three-way pan head and quick-release) and Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount ($249.95, plus head) are good examples of the genre.

Vanguard PH-304 Window Mount

Wimberley Head

Arca-Swiss Monoball Z

Heavy-Duty Ballhead
Since your car will be doing a lot of the transportation work, the road trip photographer is less concerned with weight than the daytripping, hiking photographer, so a solid ballhead is more important than a light one. A ballhead is the preferred choice of landscape and most other outdoor shooters because it allows you to quickly position the camera as desired and then lock it there with a twist of one knob.

Novoflex MagicBall

Kirk BH-3 Ballhead

Most tripod manufacturers offer a selection of ballheads, as do Acratech, Arca-Swiss, Foba, Kirk Enterprises, Novoflex and UniqBall. Again, check them out online and then try to actually lay hands on the ones you find most interesting to see how they work for you. You want a head that can support your camera and lens(es) steadily and is easy to operate.

If you want to do birds in flight, you’ll prefer a gimbal head, which allows you to pan the camera to track flying birds while providing good support for big lenses. Good gimbal heads are available from Custom Brackets, Feisol, 4th Generation (Mongoose), Gepe, Induro, Jobu Design, Kirk, Manfrotto, Photo Clam, Photoseiki, ProMediaGear, Sirui, Wimberley and Zenelli.

Sirui PH-20

Tamron SP 150-600mm ƒ/5-6.3 Di VC USD

Long Telephoto
In many cases, you won’t be able to get as close to wildlife with your car as on foot, so a supertelephoto lens is almost a necessity. The pro “big guns”—400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4, 500mm ƒ/4 and 800mm ƒ/5.6—are terrific, but very costly. Fortunately, there are some more affordable choices available today.

Sigma 150-600mm ƒ/5-6.3 DG OS HSM

Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Tamron and Sigma offer under-$1,100 150-600mm supertele zooms in mounts for Canon and Nikon DSLRs (and Sony DSLRs for the Tamron lens, and Sigma DSLRs for the Sigma lens). Canon offers the under-$1,400 EF 100-400mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM and a pair of 100-400mm supertele zooms (the newer “II” version being the better) for under $2,200, Sigma, a higher-end 150-600mm for $2,000, and Nikon, a pair of 80-400mm zooms for $1,849 and $2,699 (the latter having an AF-S motor and faster autofocusing). Pentax has announced a 150-450mm zoom for its DSLRs for around $2,500. You can also rent any of these from companies like if you don’t plan to use such focal lengths often enough to justify purchase. A 1.4X teleconverter can further extend to focal length range (although you’ll likely lose AF capability with these ƒ/5.6 and ƒ/6.3 lenses unless you have a recent higher-end DSLR body). A 2X converter will further extend the focal length of the pro big guns, but will adversely affect image quality with the “affordable” superteles.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Especially valuable to the road-tripping photographer, The Photographer’s Ephemeris is software that shows you where the sun and moon will be at anytime, anywhere in the world, and helps you visualize what the light will look like on topo maps. It’s available as a free browser-based Web app or for iOS from the App Store ($3.99) and for Android from Google Plus ($4.99).

Compact Drone
A compact drone is easy to carry in your vehicle and is easy to recharge using your aux power device. A drone provides an aerial perspective on the landscape, beyond the zone adjacent to the road. There are rules pertaining to drone operation—from the FAA, the NPS and even local entities—so check the rules in your area. Don’t operate the drone in such a way as to create hazard to people, property or wildlife, or out of your sight.

DJI Phantom 3

DJI‘s new Phantom 3 is an easy-to-fly quadcopter that comes in two versions: Advanced, which can do 1920×1080 video at up to 60p; and Professional, with 4K video capability (4096×2160/24p and 3840×2160/24p and 30p). Both can shoot 12-megapixel (4000×3000-pixel) still images. The 3-axis, gimbal-stabilized camera features a 1/2.3-inch Sony Exmor sensor and a 20mm (35mm-camera-equivalent) lens with a rectilinear (non-fisheye) 90° angle of view. The supplied DJI Lightbridge lets you see what the camera is seeing in HD 720p on your smartphone or tablet, at distances up to one mile. You can make camera settings from your smart device via DJI’s Pilot app (which can live-stream flights to YouTube). Estimated Street Price: $999 (Advanced); $1,259 (Professional); both include a controller.


The easy-to-fly 3DR IRIS+quadcopter features 3DR’s Pixhawk autopilot and Follow Me technology, which causes the drone to follow your GPS Android device, hands-free, keeping the image centered on you. Tablet-based software makes flight-planning easy—just draw the desired flight path on your Android tablet or phone. The drone can fly for 16 to 22 minutes per charge. If the copter goes out of range or runs down the battery, it automatically returns to home or land itself. Estimated Street Price: $750 (basic quadcopter, with battery, charger, ground station and controller); $399.99 for optional GoPro HERO4+ Silver Edition camera; $349.99 for optional 3DR FPV Live View for GoPro; $210 for optional Tarot T-2D 2-axis camera gimbal.

Parrot Bebop

The Parrot Bebop is essentially a flying camera with a 180° fish-eye lens. The lightweight quadcopter comes with a built-in, 14-megapixel camera that can do 1080/30p video, as well as 4096×3072-pixel stills (JPEG or DNG RAW). It features an integral GPS, 3-axis stabilization and 22 minutes of flight on a battery charge. The Bebop weighs just 14.8 ounces, minimizing potential impact damage. The Bebop Drone + Skycontroller extends line-of-sight operating range to 1.2 miles, provides a mount for a controlling smartphone, includes two joysticks and will accept third-party first-person view (FPV) glasses for a fully immersive flight experience. Estimated Street Price: $499.99 (Bebop Drone); $899.99 (with Skycontroller).